Men behaving badly is a topic that resonates best with men who are themselves behaving (or have behaved, or are contemplating behaving) badly. Rob Ackerman covers the subject in exhaustive detail in “Disconnect,” a talky play about an idea man in the telecommunications racket who feels guilty for compromising his work ethic and letting down his idealistic best friend. For auds outside the target range (of badly behaving male telecom marketers), the breast-beating may prove heavier going.
No less than migrant fruit-pickers and sweatshop slaves, people who labor in the high-tech industries are working stiffs, too. So give some credit to the Working Theater — which has been putting on plays for and about America’s laboring classes for 20 years — for at least acknowledging an unspoken employment issue of these upscale wage earners, namely the ethical value of the work they produce.
When Manhattan telecom consultant Steve (Matthew Boston) finds himself in need of this kind of validation, he persuades his wife, Patty (Elizabeth Connors), to invite a couple he only recently met to their Upper West Side apartment for a dinner party. Out come the beeswax candles, the square Japanese plates, the color-coordinated placemats — cool complements to James Youmans’ minimalist set and telling indicators of the couple’s place on the socioeconomic class ladder.
But when Jane (Tina Benko) and Fred (Brennan Brown) arrive, they turn out not to be the “functioning functional couple” Steve promised. Jane is a psychiatric social worker, outspoken to the point of rudeness in Benko’s let-it-rip thesping style. As a journalist, Fred comes from an even more unpredictable working tribe, and in his drolly understated perf, Brown suggests this downtrodden non-entity may light the fire to this drama.
Of course, he does no such thing, because despite the perky efforts of pro ensemble players to indicate that something is really going on here, this party table has been set for talk, not action (as opposed to, say, an Edward Albee play, where even the most civilized conversations have a way of turning into knife-throwing events).
Not that the talk is lacking in substance. Ackerman (“Table top”) has some valid if not exactly original things to say about the difficulty of maintaining one’s integrity in a job designed to get people to buy things they don’t need and that may even rot their brain cells.
“I know, I know. We market it, we don’t moralize about it” is how Steve puts the issue in one of his soul-searching monologues. “But doesn’t anything matter to us? Within our lifetimes, objects of value pass from elegant to useful to neglected to obsolete to memory.”
There’s no arguing with these sentiments, which are earnestly felt and lucidly expressed. But when it doesn’t lead anywhere dramatically — to confrontation or behavioral change — this sort of talk is just glib gab.
Both of the key, traumatic events that figure in Steve’s life crisis — the loss of his job and death of best friend Artie — have already taken place offstage and are known only to Steve, who relives them in stylized flashbacks unseen by anyone else in the room. This means that whatever transpires at this dinner party, however conscientiously orchestrated by helmer Connie Grappo, is dramatically meaningless, because Steve isn’t letting anyone in on his secrets.
Steve isn’t a bad sort, and Boston has a good handle on the jumpy movements and edgy speech patterns that reflect the anxiety of an ethical man trying to justify the crappy work he does for a living. But Steve doesn’t really open up to anyone onstage except Artie (Lou Sumrall), who is dead and invisible to the other characters. Besides keeping Artie from contributing to the dinner conversation, his nagging but intangible presence prevents Steve from communicating in any meaningful way with his wife and their guests.
The breakdown in human communication is obviously a key issue in this play. But by keeping his characters so cut off from one another that they don’t even have a common language, Ackerman has written himself into a dramatic dead end.